1/ It’s strange how these things work. There are writers with whom it was love at first sight (Tolstoy, Melville). There are writers I came to like over time (Jane Austen). There are writers I had to rediscover (Shakespeare, Chekhov). And sometimes a writer comes to mean a lot more to me at a particular stage of my life, like Chekhov at the moment, whilst I’m having a difficult time. As I move closer to Chekhov, it so happens that I move further away from Jane Austen. It’s not because I think less highly of her, but the themes of balance, misperception, and appearance vs reality now mean less to me; whereas the subjects that now occupy me didn’t seem to interest Austen: death, grief, loneliness, longing, sex, sexual desire, unhappiness, fleetingness of love, search for meaning, and so on.
2/ I’ve never got out of my head Nabokov’s remark in his lecture about Mansfield Park:
“Nobody in Mansfield Park dies in the arms of the author and reader, as people do in Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy. The deaths in Mansfield Park happen somewhere behind the scenes and excite little emotion. These dull deaths have, however, a curiously strong influence on the development of plot.”
This is true for all of Jane Austen’s novels: deaths happen off-stage, and they’re often, if not always, functional (in Nabokov’s words: “affect the development of the novel and are introduced for structural purposes, purposes of development”).
3/ I reread Pride and Prejudice several months ago. I have always had a complicated relationship with it: I like it a lot, but it’s too light, bright, and sparkling, too much like a woman’s fantasy. Mr Darcy might exist, but you’re not going to meet him.
(I myself prefer Mr Knightley).
4/ It probably says something about me that my favourite Austen novel is Mansfield Park, her darkest, most sombre novel.
Like her other novels, it has a happy ending, but she gives us a vision, a glimpse of something else that might have happened: Fanny Price back in Portsmouth, poor, alienated, unhappy, forever unable to get out; or married to Henry Crawford, betrayed, humiliated, and miserable.
These visions are gloomier than what her other heroines might have experienced if they hadn’t got a happy ending.